by Paul R. Dekar
Superabundantly Alive. Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine
by Susan McCaslin and J.S. Porter
With a forward by Lynn Szabo and afterward by Jonathan Montaldo.
[Wood Lake Publishing, 2018. $19.96 / e-Book or Kindle: $12.48]
Cistercian monk, priest and writer, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an influential post-Second World War figure for many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His writings—for example, his essay “The Root of War is Fear” and poetry like Original Child Bomb: Points for Meditation to Be Scratched on the Walls of a Cave–inspired both authors of this fresh revisiting of Merton’s legacy.
A poet living in British Columbia, Susan McCaslin writes, “Merton … encourages people within and without traditional religions to plumb their own inner depths and engage with issues of social justice” (p. 20). Hamiltonian J.S. Porter observes, “Thomas Merton has a surprising capacity to pop up in places you may not expect. He is still alive in our culture, a quiet presence in recited prayers at addiction meetings … [and] in words on love at weddings and even at funerals. His words encourage, challenge, scold, provoke, console, and humble” (p. 29).
Merton is most frequently remembered for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), and his writings in the 1960s on prayer, interfaith and social issues. This book focuses on the person, especially one who struggled with gender relationships. I found especially moving Susan McCaslin’s imagined exchanges of Merton with women in his life: his mother Ruth Jenkins: Catholic Saints like Thérèse de Lisieux; Margie, the nurse with whom Merton fell in love; writers like Julian of Norwich and Dorothy Day; the musician Joan Baez and others.
During a speech in 2015 before the United States Congress, Pope Francis singled out Merton as one of four “great Americans” along with Dorothy Day, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The pope described Merton as “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” The monk’s contribution to America’s cultural reserves, the pope said, falls under our capacity to pursue dialogue.
Writing on December 15, 2018, fifty years to the day of his death, I am struck how Thomas Merton still challenges readers to pursue dialogue on inter-religious, gender and other social issues. This book, a compilation of essays and poetry some of which have been published elsewhere, may inspire general readers who do not know Merton’s writings to explore his ever-vital literary output. For Merton aficionados, this book captures afresh the prophetic spirit of one who, as Merton’s friend Robert Lax wrote, was “superabundantly alive.”
From the publisher’s website: “Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine is a unique, unified, multi-genre work that includes dialogue, imaginary letters, poems, and reflective essays by two established Canadian poets. Taking cues from Merton himself, Susan and John establish a playful, jazzy, tone — superabundantly alive. This book invites participation for those who already know Merton’s work and for those who are meeting this whole and broken, prophetic, whimsical, paradoxical prophet and visionary for the first time.”
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Paul R. Dekar, author of this review, has taught at McMaster University (1976-1995). He participates in local communities wrestling with feminism, interreligious dialogue, peace, racism and war. He has written Thomas Merton: Twentieth-Century Wisdom for Twenty-First Century Living (Eugene 2011) and a book about an organization of which Merton was a member, Dangerous People: The Fellowship of Reconciliation Building a Nonviolent World of Justice, Peace, and Freedom (Virginia Beach 2015). Paul’s current project is Thomas Merton on Racial Justice: Notes on the Road towards a New World (Eugene 2019)..